NEWBURGH, Maine — The contentious relationship between selectmen and a group of concerned citizens shows no sign of improving, despite the fact that the two groups have largely traded roles in the past week.
The ouster of six-year selectman Stanley “Skip” Smith during last week’s election and the sudden resignations of Selectmen Leonard “Bud” Belcher and Leona Smith on Monday have guaranteed a total replacement of the town’s governing body. Town Manager Rick Briggs said Tuesday that an election to fill Belcher’s and Smith’s seats has been scheduled for April 13.
All three former selectmen told the Bangor Daily News on Tuesday that they were relieved to be out of office and away from the scrutiny of a group that calls itself the Concerned Citizens of Newburgh, or The Fixers.
The group of Newburgh residents, who meet periodically to discuss strategy and next steps, has been scrutinizing the town’s financials, confronting selectmen at public meetings and publishing blogs and newsletters for more than a year. Voters elected Mike Burns, one of the group’s founding members, to the Board of Selectmen last week and also enacted three Fixers-initiated ordinances that: create a recall process for elected officials; change Newburgh’s form of government; and increase the Board of Selectmen from three members to five. The latter two measures take effect in March 2012.
While members of the Fixers have maintained that their efforts are on behalf of government transparency and accountability, the former selectmen said their actions have amounted to a witch hunt where the witch has already been captured.
A year ago, selectmen discovered nearly $200,000 in embezzlement by former Deputy Treasurer Cindy Dunton. The Fixers had noticed financial descrepancies prior to Dunton’s firing but say they didn’t connect the irregularities to Dunton — a fact which Belcher disputes.
“They knew before I did that Cindy Dunton was stealing money,” said Belcher to the Bangor Daily News on Tuesday. “Damn them for not telling us.”
Members of the group have told the Bangor Daily News they intended to question the irregularities at the 2010 town meeting. Selectmen discovered the thefts and fired Dunton the day before the meeting.
Dunton has admitted to the crimes in writing and in October was indicted for Class B theft by unauthorized taking by a Penobscot County grand jury. She faces a prison sentence of up to 10 years if convicted.
“The Fixers have always felt the selectmen were at fault,” said Skip Smith. “I’m not saying I don’t share some of the blame; all the selectmen do. Our mistake was that we relied too much on [former Town Manager] Nancy Hatch.”
Hatch resigned in the wake of the embezzlement but has not been charged in connection with the scandal. Skip Smith said selectmen are being blamed by some for what’s happened in the past.
“We always worked for the betterment of this town,” he said. “We’ve left the town in better financial shape than it has been in years.”
Briggs corroborated that statement, citing a recent annual audit of the town’s financials that he called “excellent.”
“We’re in strong financial shape,” he said. “The audit was printed in the town report for everyone to see.”
Former Selectman Leona Smith said she resigned because she doesn’t think she can work with Burns after being at odds with him and others in his group for so long.
“They have made us the scapegoats for what happened with Cindy Dunton,” she said. “It got personal and it got nasty and you don’t need that in small-town politics.”
Burns told the Bangor Daily News on Tuesday that working with Belcher and Smith would have been an “uphill battle” at times, but that their resignations were a surprise. He said he called for their resignations a year ago, but has toned down his rhetoric as he has seen them make progress on several fronts.
“They’ve put in a lot of good policies and followed through with them,” said Burns. “When I was elected, I knew we’d have some disagreements, but that’s part of being on a public board. I thought we were going forward from this point.”
Asked whether other members of the Fixers will attempt to fill the two empty seats on the board, as the former selectmen said they assume will happen, Burns said he didn’t think so.
“I don’t see any of them doing that, but I can’t speak for them,” said Burns. “As far as I know there is nothing planned.”
Not surprisingly, the situation at the town office has spawned discussion among townspeople.
A woman at a local convenience store, who wouldn’t identify herself because she fears retaliation, said Saturday’s town meeting, where members of the Concerned Citizens motioned for numerous spending cuts from the floor, was frustrating.
“It was a group of five or six people trying to find fault with everything the administration has done,” she said. “I wasn’t impressed.”
Newburgh resident Delmer Terrill, approached by a reporter outside a local business, said he’d like to see a deeper investigation into the embezzlement, including a probe of Nancy Hatch’s role in it.
“There’s such a thing as accountability,” he said. “She was the town manager at the time.”
The three former selectmen all said they will continue to attend meetings — and to some degree treat selectmen as they have been treated.
“Now it’s my turn,” said Belcher. “Now I’m Joe Citizen.”
Skip Smith agreed.
“I’ll be at every meeting and every public hearing,” he said. “I don’t think I’ll rail on them like they’ve railed on us for the past year, though.”
Nomination papers for the two open selectmen seats, which require the gathering of 25 signatures from registered Newburgh voters, are available at the town office. The papers are due back at the town office by the end of business on March 29. The election is scheduled for April 13.